Skate sprints don't come along too often on the World Cup, so I get pretty excited when they do! My last World Cup skate sprint was back in Davos in December and it was hard to imagine then that I would have to wait three months for my next shot!
I had good momentum coming off the Olympics, where I came into peak shape at just the right time and hit all my goals. Peaks however can be tricky and it was hard to know how long the top form would last. I hoped it would at least continue for the three weeks I had left on the World Cup.
A solid 24th place result in the 15km duathlon in Lahti was encouraging. A few days later, not qualifying in the Drammen sprint was a big disappointment and my confidence was tested. To top it off, I was still sitting just outside of the top 50 in the overall World Cup rankings, which I needed to be in to move on to the World Cup finals in Falun, Sweden. I needed a good performance on Sunday for many reasons.
Kikkan Randall -NordicFocus/Salomon
I chose to sit out Saturday's mass-start 30km skate race in order to be rested and ready for Sunday's sprint. Next year's World Championships will be contested on the courses that we are racing this weekend and it was going to be important to gain as much experience and confidence on the sprint course as possible.
The final Nordic Combined World Cup race of the season was underway when we arrived, so we weren't allowed to warm-up on the course until the race was finished. I grabbed some warm-up skis and jogged the 600m to the warm-up track through thongs of fans making their way into the stadium. I felt heavy from all the nervous energy and spent the first twenty minutes coaxing myself up to pace.
When the course finally did open, about 35 minutes before the start, I met up with Peter to test skis. The snow was drastically different on certain sections of the course and it took some careful attention to select the right pair.
Somehow I got a little behind on my pre-race schedule and ended up running to the start a little flustered. On my way, I ducked in front of this group of guys just as one of them was popping the cork off a shaken bottle of champagne. It turned out to be the Finnish Nordic Combined team that was celebrating their successful end of the season. The cork narrowly missed my head but the champagne ended up spraying over my face as I ran by. I figured that was a good luck omen!
After a long and eager wait it was great to finally get on course and get the racing started! I carried good speed up and out of the stadium and around the first turn. Then I ducked down the course's only real downhill and burst onto the backside climb. I jump skated aggressively up the hill because I knew this would be a good place for me to make time.
Coming over the top the effort was starting to sink in but I was still able to make crisp movements. There was a headwind along the next stretch and I fought my way into it and down into the stadium. Gliding down the gradual decent it was tempting to want to sit in a tuck, but I knew I had to keep free skating forcefully.
My momentum carried me partway up the final climb and I V2'd for a couple big strides before switching back to a jump skate. This hill had been scraped down to ice in some sections, so I had to be light on my feet to sift through the sugar and keep from slipping.
I hit the headwind again going across the top of the biathlon range and my body was really burning from the effort. I could see the finish line. I dropped down and sailed up and over the final bridge and into the last stretch. I free-skated aggressively for a few strides and then rose up into an overspeed V2-alternate. Then I slid my foot across the line for 8th position, 3 seconds out of the lead.
While it was a really hard effort, the type where you think to yourself "how can I possibly do that three more times today?" My legs were like wood, my mouth was dry and every time I tried to clear my throat I would gag and almost throw-up. Yet it was great to get the first round done, especially knowing that I felt strong. Usually when I qualify in the top 10, I know I'm in good form.
I slowly jogged a cool-down and then found an open spot in the VIP room to relax until it was time for the finals. It was a pretty crowded room. I casually nibbled on a banana and snacked on some PowerBar Gel Blasts and semi-consciously watched the jumping competition on TV. After about an hour, it was time to get going again.
8th qualifying position put me in the 5th women's quarterfinal. This was good because I could watch the other heats go and examine different strategies at work. I noticed that most of those leading off the final hill were able to advance. So I decided my strategy would be to get a fast start and try to get into the top one or two spots from the beginning.
In my semi-final round I got off to a good start and was able to tuck in behind Hanna Falk of Sweden as we left the stadium. I followed her up the big climb. The pace was just right. Fast enough to keep the others from making attacks but still manageable.
As we came down into the stadium however, Vesna Fabian of Slovenia came free skating by on the right. Falk responded a little late and by the time we hit the steep icy slope, the others had come surging up as well. I was trapped behind Falk dropping back to forth. I almost panicked but then was able to get around as we went along the flat above the biathlon range where I got back into 2nd going around the final turn and into the finish. Korosteleva had another strong finish and we both advanced to the final.
There was only about 10 minutes to rest by the time I got back to the start area and put my warm-ups on. I jogged around to stay loose. Despite having three rounds in my legs already, I was feeling better and better as the day went on. I was psyched to lay it down in the final.
When we lined up for the start the announcer gave each one of us an introduction. There were an estimated 30,000 spectators on hand and while it wasn't as big as Bjorgen's, I got a pretty good cheer.
I started on the far left lane to the inside. I knew I was going to need a good start to keep from getting cut-off. I crouched for the gun once more and reacted instantly when I heard the crack!
I sprinted hard for the first 100m to get out front. As we neared the top of the first rise, Falk was to my left but she didn't challenge for the lead. I thought to myself, "okay, I'll lead if I have to." I took the lead going around the first corner but eased back on the pace a bit. Just then, Kowalczyk came powering by on my right and took the lead. I responded quickly and tucked in behind her on the next downhill. This was perfect; I could follow Kowalczyk and save energy for an attack in the 2nd half.
Sprinting up the big climb, Kowalczyk was jump skating at a pretty good pace, but I pulled over to the right to defend my position. For a few seconds I contemplated passing her and going for a break. Falk tried to come up on the left side. Then someone stepped on my ski and I got partly spun sideways. There was a split second of panic but I had so much momentum I was able to regain my stride quickly and tuck back in 2nd behind Kowalczyk over the top of the hill. I continued to play defense and draft behind Kowalczyk across the next flat.
As we headed down the hill into the stadium, I stayed behind for just a few seconds and then tried to get a slingshot out of the draft, free-skating hard to take the lead. I got open snow up the steep icy climb and jump skated my way to the front. I sprinted hard but tried to vary my pace across the flat and then made a big surge going around the final turn. I made it up and over the bridge and sailed into the final stretch with the lead.
This time I didn't tuck; I went straight into free skating aggressively as I could. Suddenly, with just 100m to go, a dark shadow came bursting up next to me on the right. It was Bjorgen. She was madly V2'ing while I was still free skating. It took me a second to respond and get up on to my poles. By then her momentum was too great and she got a couple meters on me. Just before crossing the finish line another shadow came up on the right. It was Korosteleva charging hard. But I was able to stick my foot out and hold 2nd place. The crowd was roaring.
Immediately, Bjorgen came over to me and we exchanged handshakes and then also with Korosteleva. We were all happy to have a great finish to hard day. I was super psyched and relieved to be back on the podium. Grover came running up and gave me a big hug. It feels good to have a successful result like this not just for me but also for the team. I have a great team behind me and they did a wonderful job with the skis and support to make this podium finish possible. It was great to share it with everyone.
I changed into dry clothes there in the finish area and watched the men's final. Then we did a flower ceremony, a press conference and a quick stop in doping control. Thankfully I was plenty hydrated!
By the time I got back to the wax cabin, everyone was chanting and celebrating and in a really good mood. I shared my story about getting sprayed in the face with champagne earlier in the day and we joked about making that a new pre-race ritual.
Later that evening all of the US, Canadian and Norwegian team members were invited to the US Ambassador's house for a reception. US Ambassador Barry White gave a welcome speech and then each team had a representative say a little something. Devon Kershaw gave a nice speech on behalf of the Canadians and Billy Demong represented us well, even including a little Norwegian at the end of his talk. It was a great chance to celebrate a good week of racing and maybe recruit a few more fans for cross-country skiing!
Taking 2nd place at this Holmenkollen World Cup sprint was important in so many ways. Firstly, it was a good buoy to my confidence and motivation for the future. It feels good to be a true contender for the win. Especially since the Olympic sprint was classic, it's nice to know I would have been in there if it had been skate! Secondly, it was sweet to put down a good result and gather a bunch of experience in preparation for next year's World Championships. And lastly, I needed a good result to get enough points to qualify for the finals in Falun this next week.
So now I head off to Stockholm for the start of the World Cup finals. It will be a classic sprint there on Wednesday, with the course laid out over the steps of the Royal Palace. Then on Friday we'll be in Falun for three days of racing back to back in the form of a mini-tour.
Thanks for tuning in!!